Summary: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that the words spoken by God’s prophets and apostles are scripture, meaning they are the words of God given to man for their salvation, whether those words are recorded in the Old and New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price or the recorded sermons of modern-day apostles and prophets given in General Conference. This article examines one of those sermons and its implication for us.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that the words spoken by God’s prophets and apostles are scripture, meaning they are the words of God given to man for their salvation, whether those words are recorded in the Old and New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price or the recorded sermons of modern-day apostles and prophets given in General Conference. As the Lord has stated: “Whether by my voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38)
In his October 2019 conference talk entitled “Trust in the Lord.” President Dallin H. Oaks, an apostle and prophet, started by reading a letter he’d received from a member of the church concerning what life is like after we die. In response to this and similar questions he asked. “What do we really know about conditions in the spirit world?” And then he answered his own question by saying, “not as much as we often think.”
President Oaks went on to explain that “we know from the scriptures that after our bodies die we continue to live as spirits in the spirit world. The scriptures also teach that this spirit world is divided between those who have been ‘righteous’ or ‘just’ during life and those who have been wicked. They also describe how some faithful spirits teach the gospel to those who have been wicked or rebellious.” The scriptures refer to these two areas as paradise and the spirit prison.
I once had a discussion with a faithful priesthood holder about who goes where after death. It was his contention that only members of the Church go to paradise, while everyone else goes to the spirit prison. He based his reasoning on two things. First, he said that only members of the church were considered by God to be “righteous” because they were the only ones who had been baptized and had become clean from their sins, whereas everyone else were still in their sins. Secondly, he said that since the gospel was being preached to those who hadn’t accepted the gospel then they hadn’t repented of their sins, which to him was further proof that those who were being preached to were in the spirit prison.
I told him that my understanding was that those who went to the spirit prison were the really wicked who were candidates for the telestial kingdom. The apostle Paul taught who these people are when he wrote, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9,10).
However, those who go to the terrestrial kingdom “are they who are the honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men (D&C 76:75). I argued that if these people are “honorable” then they cannot be considered as being among “the wicked,” especially when compared to Paul’s definition of who the unrighteous are.
He disagreed with me, and as we continued talking, our conversation went from a friendly discussion to a spirited debate and eventually developed into a heated argument. The result of this exchange was that it had a lasting negative effect on our friendship, and I’ve seen this same situation happen with people while discussing various other doctrinal topics.
In his talk, President Oaks emphasized that the only things we know for certain about the spirit world is found in the scriptures, and then he added, “Beyond these basics, our canon of scripture contains very little about the spirit world that follows death and precedes the Final Judgment.”
If that is true, then when we discuss things that are not specifically stated in the scriptures, we are expressing our “opinion,” which we are all entitled to have, but quite frequently what happens is that we tend to express them as though they are the absolute truth. When someone’s opinion is different than our own, too often we immediately take the position that their opinion has to be “wrong” since, in our mind, our opinion is the correct one. When the person we’re talking with has the same attitude, it isn’t long before both parties find themselves in a contentious discussion that only creates hard feelings rather than feelings of harmony and peace.
This condition can happen to anyone, including apostles. When Christ visited the Nephites after his resurrection, he instructed his disciples saying “there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been. For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11:28-29).
Later when the disciples were praying unto Jesus, he appeared unto them and said, “What will ye that I shall give unto you? And they said unto him: Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this church; for there are disputations among the people concerning this matter” (3 Nephi 27:2-3).
Yet despite this commandment not to dispute with one another, especially about the doctrines of Christ, priesthood holders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints love to get into deep discussions about various aspects of the gospel, and more especially the mysteries of God. Although such discussions are interesting and intellectually stimulating, great care must be taken to make sure these conversations don’t become argumentative because when they do we open the door for Satan to enter our hearts as he attempts to divide us, one against another.
As we have seen, even the leaders of the church can fall into this trap if they are not careful. In modern times a serious disagreement arose between two General Authorities who were both noted for their exceptional knowledge of the scriptures – B.H. Roberts, who was a member of the First Quorum of the Seventies, and Joseph Fielding Smith, who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.
Since both men were absolutely convinced of the correctness of their position on a particular subject, their disagreement eventually became quite intense. In an effort to resolve this matter, the issue was put before the First Presidency (David O. McKay, and his counselors) who, after much prayer and deliberation came back and said they didn’t know who was right because the Lord hadn’t revealed that information to them. If something has not been revealed to the president of the church then it is foolishness, and ever arrogant, to persist in claiming a knowledge that not even the President of the Church has received.
What causes this to happen is when people read the scriptures, they place their own interpretation on what they think it says. For example, we know that the “righteous” go to paradise when they die, but there are different interpretations of who exactly are “the righteous.” People will quote other scriptures to justify their own interpretation but as we have seen in the Protestant faith, there are a multiple of scriptures that can be quoted to support whatever belief a person has.
This was the very situation that a young teenage boy by the name of Joseph Smith encountered in his day. As he listened to the various preachers describe how a person becomes saved, he concluded that “the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible” (Joseph Smith History, verse 12). And Latter-day Saints are just as prone to doing this as anyone else.
President Oaks went on to say, “Many members of the Church have had visions or other inspirations.” One of the fundamental doctrines of Christ’s restored church is that all of us are entitled to receiving revelation, and there are many accounts in church history where people have had visions. However, President Oaks warned that “personal spiritual experiences are not to be understood or taught as the official doctrine of the Church.”
Our 9th Articles of Faith states, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
We usually interpret this to mean that God will give the church new scriptures as revealed to his prophets that will teach us more about the mysteries of heaven, however, God has said, “But unto him that keepeth my commandments I will give the mysteries of my kingdom” (D&C 63:23).
God is constantly revealing many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God, but more often than not he does so to individuals who are prepared to receive them. The scriptures also tell us that the Lord has revealed things to certain people that he doesn’t want revealed to others. For example, Paul wrote about seeing and hearing things that were not lawful to utter (2 Corinthians 12:4) and the brother of Jared was shown many great and marvelous things but was commanded to seal them up (Ether 3:27).
When the Spirit has revealed additional light and knowledge to us, we might want to share that knowledge with others, but when we do, we must never argue about them or claim them as doctrine. If someone disagrees with us, we should allow them the right to do so because not everyone sees things as we do. There’s nothing positive to be gained by striving to make someone agree with our point of view. When we do that, we generally don’t think of ourselves as trying to force our opinions onto others, but in reality, that’s exactly what we’re doing. And when that happens it divides people rather than brings them together.
President Oaks went on to say, “there is abundant speculation by members and others in published sources like books on near-death experiences.” Deseret Books is one of several companies that sell books written by General Authorities, including Presidents of the church, as well as by professors of religion at BYU. These books all provide valuable insight and understanding into the scriptures and the gospel, but President Oaks quoted Elder Christopherson who cautions that “It should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.”
Then how do we know what to believe? President Oaks quoted Elder Anderson as explaining, “The doctrine [of the church] is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk.” In other words, the official doctrine of the Church is not found in statements made or written by individual church leaders, no matter how well-considered and backed by scripture they may be, unless they have been officially supported and approved of by both the First Presidency and the full Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
A case in point is a book written by Bruce R. McConkie entitled “Mormon Doctrine.” Since Elder McConkie was an apostle (which he wasn’t when he wrote this book) many people have assumed that his book taught the official doctrines of the Church. However, not one member of the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve has ever officially endorsed it. Of course, it does contain many things that are official doctrine, but that’s not true of everything in it. There are things in this book that some members of the Twelve do disagree with.
Therefore, despite its wealth of good information, the book “Mormon Doctrine” should not be used to teach the official doctrine of the Church because it is a book expressing the opinion of one person. On the other hand, the Church does officially recognize the book “Jesus The Christ,” by Elder Talmage, and “A Marvelous Work and a Wonder” by Elder LeGrand Richards. Furthermore, books that contain a collection of conference talks given by a particular prophet or apostle are acceptable for teaching doctrine.
The purpose of earth life is to learn to become more like our Father in heaven and we do that by following the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nowhere is it taught that our salvation, even in the least degree, is dependent on knowing any of the mysteries of God. It’s not even necessary for our salvation to know that there is a spirit world or that there are three degrees of heaven. All that is needed for us to be saved into the celestial kingdom is to be baptized by someone having the proper authority, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost and then endure to the end in keeping the commandments God has given us while learning how to love God with all of our heart and serving our fellow man with love.
It’s not what we know that qualifies us to live with God forever, but how much we have become like him, and the way we do that is by following the basic doctrines as taught by Jesus Christ. President Oaks put it this way: “The duty of each of us is to teach the doctrine of the restored gospel, keep the commandments, love and help one another, and do the work of salvation in the holy temples.”
Nephi lamented “And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?” (2 Nephi 2:27).
Although learning about the mysteries of God can be quite interesting and even exciting, but arguing about them stunts our spiritual growth because when we argue we’re giving place in our heart for the evil one to destroy our peace and afflict our soul.
Arguing is yielding to the temptations of the flesh by giving into our pride, and is behaving more like Satan than like Christ because it leads to doing the exact opposite of loving our neighbor. Instead of arguing, we should do as Nephi, and ask ourselves, “Why am I angry with my neighbor just because they don’t see things as I do?”
This is the message of a modern-day apostle.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Man